HOUSTON, TEXAS // Romelu Lukaku and Marcus Rashford scored twice in two minutes as Manchester United beat neighbours City 2-0 in a friendly in Houston, the first Manchester derby to be played outside the UK.
The goals from the deadly duo, starting together for the first time, followed fast, clinical and decisive play, descriptions desperately lacking from United’s forward play last season. United finished sixth in the Premier League last season with only 54 goals from 38 matches. Every team above them scored at least 77. Jose Mourinho’s side drew more home games than they won and floundered to lower-placed opponents.
Mourinho hopes that Lukaku – and those around him – will help change that and the early evidence is encouraging. The Belgian has scored in both his first two starts for United in friendlies.
Lukaku’s opening strike from a narrow angle after 37 minutes saw the vast majority of the 67,401 crowd in the NRG Stadium celebrate to the strains of "Glory Glory Man United", while the manner of the goal and Lukaku’s overall movement will bring further satisfaction.
The Belgian may be the heaviest player at the club, but he covers much ground, stretching defenders and pulling them wide to free up space elsewhere. Marcus Rashford, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Ander Herrera have all performed well, with Mkhitaryan boasting two goals and two assists in three games and Herrera shooting more.
“I was delighted when Romelu joined,” said Mkhitaryan of the new signing. “I’d played against him and knew how good he was. He can hold the ball, he can open up play himself and his connections will improve with more games here. He creates space which is important because we have lots of offensive players who like to move around.”
Rashford, who did a pre-press season at the Nike World Campus in Portland, Oregon, is so confident right now that he attempted and almost scored with an effort from 40 yards. That came after his 38th-minute goal when Mkhitaryan slipped the ball towards the 19-year-old striker, who fired low across debutant Ederson into the City goal.
“Marcus just needs to keep working hard and doing what he’s doing and he’ll become one of the best players,” added Mkhitaryan, who is happy with his own progress, physical shape and feels he can improve on last season.
Unlike last season, Paul Pogba is also benefitting from a pre-season, showcasing his wide range of passing, which was praised by his manager. The Frenchman approved of the Texan razzmatazz, with the match ball delivered by the rapper Drake, a man whose 36 million Twitter followers is more than twice the Manchester clubs combined. Images of both club badges beamed onto the pitch with a Manchester worker bee continued were a first, while the lights were dimmed as the teams walked out.
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But it is what happens on the pitch that matters most and United’s two goals were as many as they scored in three Manchester derbies last season, with City unable to reply.
As Pep Guardiola’s side tried to get back into the game at the start of the second half, Lukuku showed another facet to his game by dropping deep into his own half and collecting the ball with his back to goal, before playing it to Herrera.
Lukaku’s greatest impact will be further forward, as illustrated after 52 minutes, closing down John Stones who nervously chested a ball into his path. The Belgian reacted instantly, hitting a shot with such power that the goal shook.
City fans will be encouraged by the performance of 17-year-old midfielder Phil Foden, born and raised as a City fan in Stockport, Greater Manchester, and on his first trip with the first team.
The friendly, City’s first of the pre-season and United’s third, was well received by the Houston public. Both Manchester clubs continue their tour, with Real Madrid their next opponents, against United in Santa Clara on Sunday and City in Los Angeles in six days' time.